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Cursed Blessings

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They took a quick break just against the wall of the inner keep, the three of them hunkering down into the lee of some rubble to catch their breath and run a quick check for wounds. Nothing serious, fortunately. Just a few cuts and bruises between them. Which was bloody good going, for having tackled the forest, grounds and outer defenses of a gods-damned witch's castle.

Actually, it was nothing short of miraculous, Rohn couldn't help but think, given how bloody rushed and reckless they'd been for most of it. One of them in particular.

He'd give an awful of a lot right now to know just what the hell had gotten into Lira. He'd never seen her like this before, never seen her so furious and upset. Or, not upset. Not exactly. Something else. Resigned, maybe? Disappointed? Betrayed? Something, anyway, and whatever it was it had only made her temper a thousand times worse. Whoever the hell this 'Prince Lorcan' was, he clearly meant something to her, enough for her to storm out here nearly the second she heard rumour that this witch had taken him.

And 'storm' was certainly the word. She'd cut through monsters and defenses like ribbons, nearly without pause, with him and Falael relegated mostly to keeping up the rear and sniping stragglers. One name, and she turned into a one-woman army out here. Really and truly, who the hell was this guy?

He stared at her now, standing armoured and fearsome before them, scanning the walls of the inner keep for weakness. There was no hint of warmth or kindness on her blunt features, nothing but impatience and anger and a thread of worry. That last, at least, he could get behind. Falael as well, he was sure. They were all bloody worried right now. Just, two of them about a rather different matter than the first.

"Come on," Lira said quietly, hefting her sword. "We need to keep moving. The more time we give her, the more defenses she can put in our way."

"... Yes," Falael said, equally soft. "And the more time she has to punish your prince for our assault, as well?"

Rohn winced. A fair point, yes, but not necessarily the right time to bring it up. It had been meanly said. There was a hint of anger and upset in the tight, sharp lines of the scout's face. She'd meant the question for a blow or a challenge, no doubt about that. Lira maybe even recognised that, maybe even allowed the justice of it, but if it had been meant to slow her down, then it worked not at all. The opposite, in point of fact. The lines around her eyes creased briefly in sorrow and apology, but then her entire expression hardened resolutely once more.

"Yes indeed," she murmured coldly. "The more time she has to punish him. I'm sorry. You know I am. But the day I let anyone harm him freely is the day you lay my sword on my grave."

"Why?" Falael hissed. "Lira, why? Who is he? For gods' sake, can't you at least tell us?"

Lira grimaced, but shook her head. "After," was all she said. "You'll see soon. Please. Just a little farther. For me."

They glanced at each other, him and Falael, the both of them tired and grumpy and distinctly annoyed. But, too, resigned and worried and too damned far into the thing to be going back now. Rohn shrugged amiably, and their scout looked away in aggravated capitulation. Fine then. They were here anyway. They might as well finish the job.

"I sincerely hope we're going to get paid for this," Rohn said lightly, standing up with a groan and moving to stand beside Lira once again. "I'm going to need four days in an inn with a good bathtub after this. Just so you know."

Lira smiled briefly, just a tiny flicker across her face. "You'll get it," she said. "Don't worry. Lorcan's always been good for that sort of thing."

Was he now, Rohn thought curiously. A prince, a pretty prince of a distant kingdom, stolen by a witch. Now how did Lira know what he was good for and what he wasn't?

Well. They'd find out shortly, wouldn't they?

In point of fact, they found out very shortly indeed. Barely a minute later, when a hidden grate creaked rustily open in the inner wall not twenty feet from them and a huge, furred, clawed creature slithered out, followed almost immediately by a slight, golden-haired figure in a ragged cloak. He/she/it stumbled on the landing, and the werewolf, bizarrely, reached out two massive hands to prop him/her/it gently back to their feet.

They'd all spun around at the noise, all three of them, and brought their weapons up instinctively at the sight of the monster, but at the sight of this, the second figure, Lira made a noise Rohn had never heard from her in his life, and bolted forward with her sword at shoulder height to start lopping limbs off.

"No!" the figure squeaked, scrambling forward to get between them, hands raised and held palm outwards in panicked reassurance. "Lira, no! It's okay! He helped me out of there, kindly don't kill him straight out of the gate, will you?"

The werewolf, interestingly, had backed up and dropped to all fours behind the ... man. Prince Lorcan, presumably. The creature hunched defensively behind him, its own hands spread and open as well in a posture that agreed very emphatically with the 'don't kill me' sentiment. Rohn, who had darted forwards to back Lira up, found himself slowing contemplatively to a halt, Falael stopping much more jerkily beside him. Together, they let Lira close the rest of the distance, and simply stood back and studied their new company.

The man was certainly beautiful, was the first thing Rohn couldn't entirely help but notice. They'd heard him described as 'pretty', all right, 'Lorcan the Fair', but the epithet really didn't do the man justice. He wasn't pretty. He was, in fact, straight up beautiful, with golden hair like a fall of sunlight, warm amber eyes, and a pale, fine boned face that might have been made of porcelain. He was almost a match for Lira's colouring, Rohn noted absently, though it looked far, far better on the prince. He was stunning, and the filthy, ragged clothes he was wearing didn't dent that in the slightest. Improved it, if anything, just by contrast.

The second thing he noticed, also without being able to help it, was that Prince Lorcan and Lira were, in fact, on extremely friendly terms. If her dropping her sword and scooping him violently into her arms was anything to go by, anyway. Not to mention his giddy, hiccoughing laugh and the way he curled instinctively around her in return, his arms tight and shaking across her back. Her gauntleted hands had to be digging into his kidneys, and he never so much as flinched. He just lowered his head to hers and rested against her in silence. For a moment. Just a moment.

"You told me you were going to stay safe," Lira hissed furiously, rocking him in her arms. "You promised me. You promised, Lorcan. You said if I left to do this quest, you would keep yourself out of danger."

The prince flinched a bit, hunching down against her. It was the werewolf, curiously, who answered for him.

"He tried," the creature said, reaching out to touch the back of the prince's knee lightly. "Please, Princess, I will swear it to you. He had no knowledge of my mistress' plans, or even her existence. We took him unawares, from his own castle, before any could stop us. There was nothing he could have done. Nor you, had you been there."

... Princess. Please, Princess. Rohn blinked rapidly to himself, felt Falael jolt in place beside him. That was ... well then. Bloody buggering hell, hmm?

Lira didn't look back at them. She must have sensed their sudden stillness, the sudden pregnant silence behind her, but she kept her eyes on the wolf instead. She kept her arms wrapped around her ... brother? husband? ... and glared down at the creature that dared try to speak for him.

"Oh?" she asked icily. "I wouldn't be so certain of that. But come. Tell me all about your mistress' plans. And your mistress, come to that. I shall be meeting her shortly, after all. It might be nice to have a name to greet her with."

The werewolf flinched. Entirely understandably, Rohn admitted to himself. There was more ice in Lira's tone than in the whole of the frozen north. Lorcan took his turn to intervene, though. The prince took his turn to lean back and speak up.

"You don't need to worry about her," he said quietly. Angling his face away from Lira, his expression tired and ... shamed? Guilty, Rohn thought. Huh. Interesting.

And he wasn't the only one who thought so. Lira reached up to catch the prince's chin, her armoured fingers gentle but insistent as she guided him back around. He grimaced as he came, closing his eyes against her, and then he opened them again. Then he straightened his spine and met her stare for stare.

"What happened?" she asked quietly. Gently. "Lorcan ... did you kill her?"

"... No," said the werewolf. Equally gentle, looking at the prince. "He didn't kill her, Princess. I did. It was ... It was a long time coming. Your attack gave me an opening at last. But he ... he witnessed it. Your brother. He was close enough to taste her blood as she died."

Lorcan didn't flinch there. Rohn thought they'd all somewhat expected him to, just for how gentle the other two were being. He didn't, though. He just looked tired and resigned.

"She meant to kill me as you breached the courtyard," he said tiredly. "She wanted to wait so you'd see it. I think you annoyed her, sister, storming up here so rapidly and successfully. No one's breached her outer defenses like that in years. She was quite annoyed, and meant to punish you for it. Us, I suppose, although she had meant to kill me sooner or later anyway. Yonek here ... declined to allow it. I ... You may wish to thank him for that."

Lira looked at him a moment longer. Studied him, her hand tight and fierce on his arm. Then she turned, slowly, and looked at the werewolf instead.

"You saved his life?" she asked softly. Dangerously. "Why? Not that I'm not grateful, you understand, but ... Why? She was your mistress, wasn't she?"

The creature paused, thoughtfully, for a long moment. And then it stood, slowly and carefully, to its full height behind them. Rohn shifted his weight warily, his hand tightening around his sword. Falael changed her grip on her bow. Lira growled lowly and pulled her brother towards her. Lorcan didn't startle, though. And the wolf didn't threaten.

"She was my mistress," it said calmly, holding out a clawed hand towards Lorcan that the prince readily and easily took in his own. "A good one, even, as such things go. She at least did not mistreat us without a stated cause. It is more than many of us might expect. But she ... She was wrong to take your brother. Wrong to hurt him. Wrong to want him dead. There was ... no cause for that. He was not an enemy. He was not a threat. It was ... petty, what she did. It was a pointless, petty thing. It was not right that he die for it."

Lorcan smiled crookedly, curling his fingers through the creature's claws. "Yonek has a ... very defined sense of fairness, you see," he confided softly. "More so than most of his kind. He doesn't think mere jealousy enough of a reason to destroy someone. Nor vanity enough of a reason for anything at all."

Lira paused. Carefully. Unlike the werewolf, she had no more height to stand to, but Rohn felt himself shifting again regardless. He had more than enough experience of Lira in a dangerous mood to sense the threat building.

So did Lorcan, come to that. He twitched in giddy wariness beside her.

"Vanity," she repeated slowly. "Vanity and jealousy. That was her reason? After all this time, that's still the bloody reason?"

Her brother laughed breathlessly, and reached across with his spare hand to keep her sword arm from rising. "Always," he said, still with his crooked smile. "Is, was, and ever shall be. We were cursed, Lira. Or blessed. Probably both. We're never going to escape it. We've just got to live with it, sister dear, as best we can."

And there. There was a nice, clean moment to step in and ask some questions at last. They'd been very patient so far, Rohn thought, himself and Falael, but there was a nice, wide opening, and he most certainly intended to take advantage of it.

He moved forward and to one side, Falael in step beside him, and settled his weight solidly to glance between the three of them. The werewolf, Yonek, looked wary and bemused. Prince Lorcan the bloody Fair looked sheepish and curious.

And Lira, to her eternal credit, had the grace to look guilty.

"You mind if I ask for some clarification here, Lira?" Rohn rumbled mildly, sword in its sheath and a bland, easy look on his face. Lira flinched slightly, and ducked her head. "Also some introductions, those would be very nice. You could introduce us to your brother, here. And apparently yourself. Princess."

Amusingly, Lorcan seemed to wince on his sister's behalf, and grimaced apologetically at Rohn and Falael both. Well. That was nice of him. Not the point, but nice of him. Lira grimaced too, but with both more guilt and more defiance.

"I'm supposed to be incognito," she explained gruffly, avoiding his eyes. "People get weird if there's princesses wandering around with swords pretending to be knights. Not that I'm pretending, as such, but ... Look, we get kidnapped or challenged enough from a standing start, I wasn't going to invite any more of it. If Lorcan wound up having to go to war for me, we'd all be in deep shit."

"Which isn't to say I wouldn't," Lorcan interrupted lightly. "I would absolutely go to war for her, and arrange the deaths of all who'd harmed her. So would our parents, for that matter. It just wouldn't end well, that's all. We have alliances to think about."

"Right," Lira agreed grumpily. "But I needed to go out, earn my shield and put these bloody gifts to use before they did get either of us killed. So we decided I'd go for a year or two, and I wouldn't be a princess while I was doing it. I mean, officially. I'd just be a knight, and I wouldn't mention the other thing."

"She would have told you," her brother said, glancing between her and them. "If you ... If you're hers, if she trusts you. She would have told you when she brought you back home. We're not ... We don't use people. We wouldn't. She just had to be careful. People listen for us, for even hints of us. They've been looking for her since she left, and not all by mundane means, either. She would have told you. It just wasn't safe before time."

Rohn blinked at him. He didn't ... he wasn't entirely sure what he was meant to do with that. It was reasonable, he supposed. Members of a royal family wandering around unsupervised, it probably was a recipe for kidnappings. If she did need to go out and about, it probably made sense not to advertise the fact. And it was nice to know that she would have told them eventually. That Lira wouldn't have just gone her own way at the end of things and left them to wonder where that bullheaded idiot of a friend had ended up. That was ... good. He just ...

"Who the bloody hell are you people?" Falael growled out from beside him, a hard, sharp snap of betrayal, regardless of how reasonable anybody might have been. Oh good, he thought hazily. It wasn't just him, then. "Lira, you ... Gifts? Kidnappings? Royalty? What the hell are you doing out here? What are you doing it for?"

They glanced at each other. Lira and her bloody brother. He looked skittish, worried. Lira looked mulish and upset, standing so as to shelter him under her arm. Rohn did feel a vague flicker of guilt at that. He just felt a bit bigger flicker of hurt. Lira wasn't the sort to flinch from that, though, nor back away from what she thought needed doing.

"My name is Lira Astir," she said coldly, meeting Rohn's gaze head on. "Called Lira the Fierce, of the Kingdom of Tiral. This is my brother, Lorcan the Fair. We are the heir and daughter of King Tomal and Queen Falif of Tiral. And, twenty three years ago, when we were just born, we were both cursed."

"Blessed," Lorcan corrected, while Rohn and Falael stared at them. Not the werewolf. Apparently the creature was already familiar with this information. It only looked down at the prince as he touched his sister's hand lightly. "Intent has to count for something, Lira."

Lira snorted harshly. "Sure," she said flatly. "Twenty three years ago, we were blessed. By idiots, but all right. Let's call it that."

Lorcan smiled crookedly. "It really was a blessing," he said, looking over at them. "Or it was meant as one. You, ah. You've heard stories of fairies granting gifts to those who've won their favour?"

Rohn, Falael and Lira all flinched unanimously. Falael more so. Ah. All right, yes. That explained ... just about everything, really. The 'blessings' of fairies were always a tricky prospect, even with the best wills in the world. As more than one of them had apparently found out.

No wonder Lira had taken Falael's occasional ranting on the subject so very much in stride.

Lorcan's eyes skipped between them, registering the changes in expression. He glanced between Falael and Lira in particular, and then met Rohn's eyes with a slight questioning tilt to an eyebrow, and then a tiny nod of understanding. He really was an handsome bastard, Rohn noted absently. As tired and battered and the source of multiple upsets as he was at the minute, there was no denying that.

"They couldn't tell which one of us was which," Lira grunted eventually. "It would have been fine, except for that. Well. Maybe. People get jealous and upset about fairy gifts regardless, so maybe not. But it was worse because of that. Because our parents put us in the same crib, and fairies can't tell the difference between boy infants and girl infants without help."

Rohn coughed a bit at that. He, ah. He wasn't entirely sure he blamed the fairies there. He didn't have the best track record with that either, presuming you weren't allowed to lift the swaddling and bluntly check. Two babies wrapped up together in a crib? He wasn't entirely sure he would have done any better than the fairies with that one.

"They gave us the standard gifts," Lorcan continued gently. Almost amusedly, in weary defiance of his sister's ire. "What would have been the standard gifts. Beauty, grace and a song to soothe the soul for the princess, strength, courage and virtue in the face of evil for the prince. They would have been good gifts, I think, if they'd managed to bestow them on the right babies."

Rohn grimaced sympathetically. "Lorcan the Fair," he said, understanding.

The prince beamed at him. "And Lira the Fierce," he agreed, slanting a warm look at his sister. "A beautiful prince with a lovely voice who could outshine all the ladies of the court, and a fearsome princess with a sword arm who could punch out every knight in the land. It made things ... complicated, let me tell you."

"... I believe it," Rohn said honestly, and Falael snorted bitter agreement beside him. "I can see how that might stir a court up, all right."

Lira growled. "The court, the kingdom, every other kingdom we've dealt with," she sighed tiredly. "Not to mention random witches and sorcerors and champions who all wanted or hated one thing or the other. Me for being a woman capable of beating them, Lorcan for being a man capable of outshining them. And the gifts do demand to be used. There's ... It's hard to explain. There's a pressure. Lorcan needs to speak to people, to be seen by them. I need to act, to fight, to face evil. His could be answered to a large extent within the court, as our diplomat. Mine was not so simple."

"Hence a quest," Falael finished, and Rohn actually glanced at her, startled by the lack of venom to it. She looked a lot calmer now, their scout, a lot less upset by Lira's secrets or her mad rush to rescue her brother. Which ... was fair enough, yes, but Falael was almost as stubborn as Lira at times. Rohn had expected a little more of a fight from her.

Then again, she did despise fairies, and all their works. If there was one thing in the world that might wring sympathy from her ...

"I would have told you," Lira said, interrupting the thought and turning to face them squarely. "I never meant to lie. It's just ... This wasn't the first time someone has tried to take one or other of us. Fairy gifts are rare, and our particular ones are ... challenging. People go for Lorcan more than me, but I've never been exempt. And Lorcan would have gone to war. You might not believe that to see him, but ..."

"But he is not a coward," the werewolf interrupted gently. Touching the prince again, a clawed hand at his shoulder. "He is not a man to flinch from pain, or violence, or necessity. I have seen this, yes. He does not have your sword arm. It does not mean he will not kill."

Lira blinked at him for that. She narrowed her eyes, looking the creature and her brother, the towering monster and the ragged prince. "... It was you who killed the witch, wasn't it?" she asked lightly. "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"

"He wouldn't," Lorcan assured. Tugging her hand, bringing her focus back to him. "He didn't lie, Lira. He was the one who killed her. He just ... wasn't necessarily the only one who tried, is all."

Lira tilted her head slowly. "Lorcan," she said.

"He is not hurt," the werewolf assured hurriedly. "Or not much. I killed her before she could hurt him much. He only fought to spare you. So you would not see him die. It didn't work, but he is only lightly hurt. It will heal quickly. Even for a human."

Rohn palmed his face desperately. It was clear the wolf genuinely did think it was being reassuring. It was clear it genuinely did think that should calm Lira down. The rest of them, having a little bit more experience with the woman in question, weren't quite so certain. For entirely understandable reasons.

"Right!" he said, stepping forward before anything could get ugly. "All right, yes. We all need some patching up, then. The three of us fought our way up here, and you two fought your way out here, we all need to sit down for a while and get checked out. So. So we camp, we give each other a look over, patch each other up as need be, and then we rest. Right? Sound good to everyone?"

"Sounds perfect!" Lorcan chirped hurriedly. "Absolutely perfect, yes. Let's all go ... fix each other up, yes. Absolutely."

The wolf tilted its head, but didn't protest. "There are none left in the castle, should you wish to go there," it rumbled calmly. "My brethren will have fled on Branwyn's death. They will not face a foe without cause. I will keep watch for us, but it should not be needed. We are safe, for the moment."

Falael snorted doubtfully there, echoed only a bare second later by Lira. None of them protested, however. The company of three had been camping and fighting long enough that a free castle sounded just as perfect as Lorcan said, and if Lorcan himself had any qualms about going back inside the place of his imprisonment, he didn't show it. He touched the werewolf lightly on the back of one clawed hand instead.

"Thank you, Yonek," he said seriously. "You don't mind, do you? We battered humans likely could use the rest."

The wolf bared its teeth at him. It took Rohn a very long second to realise it was meant to be a smile. It turned its hand to catch his and squeezed gently.

"Fear not," it said. "I will guard you and your kin. You are owed that much, for our wrong."

Lorcan smiled wearily up at him. "I think saving my life pays that one," he said gently. "You don't owe anything past that. But if you'd be willing, I'd be grateful."

"... As would we all," Lira said, watching them carefully. But she squared her shoulders a moment later, and held out her own hand to the creature. "My brother's right, though. You paid any debt in saving his life. Whatever reward you might ask for that, I give you my word I will see it done."

Rohn blinked. "Does that go for all of us?" he asked mildly. Ignoring the odd twinge at the idea of asking that of Lira. Even now. Lorcan, yes, if he wanted to pay them he could feel free and happily, but Lira ... You didn't ask your sister-in-arms to pay for you. Or to just pay you, either. You just didn't. They'd traded life saving for months now. If she tried to hand him something now he'd punch her in the face.

And he saw something of that when she turned to him. Him and Falael, her partners. He saw the hesitance, the wrongfootedness, the fear that something had broken between them. That she'd done the breaking. Rohn saw that, and forgave her that same instant.

"... It can do, if you want," she said softly. Lira the Fierce, Princess of Tiral. "You've both saved my life enough times. If there's a debt owed, I'll pay it."

Lorcan watched them, there. In the small silence after that question. Lira's brother watched them, beautiful face calm and thoughtful, and Rohn had no doubts whatsoever that here was a man who would find a way to kill them the moment they stepped wrong.

He didn't mind that, though. He'd spent a few months with the man's sister, after all.

"The only debt you owe me is four days near a good bath, remember," he said gruffly, and saw Falael's sharp, secret smile as Lira's shoulders slumped in relief, and a tentative, hopeful smile crept across her blunt features. "Best not renege on that. I'll be upset."

Lira laughed delightedly. "I'll do my best," she said. "You have my word on it."

And hell, he supposed, a princess' word was good enough for anybody.